FOXBOROUGH — There will be plenty of pieces of the blame pie to go around after the Patriots’ sudden, stunning, and dominating 28-13 loss to the Ravens in Sunday night’s AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium.
Most of it will deservedly go to the offense, which despite having 120 yards of better field position than the Ravens on five drives in the first half, produced just 6 more points and were shut out in the second half.
Don’t know how many teams are capable of winning conference title games scoring 13 points, but the Patriots aren’t one of them.
Defensively, New England held their own against the Ravens’ rushing attack, which averaged 3.7 yards per carry.
And even against the pass, the Patriots made quarterback Joe Flacco work for everything. The Patriots held Flacco to 6.7 yards per attempt. Coming into the game, the Ravens were 2-5 in games that Flacco was held under 6.9.
The problem was, the Patriots failed to make any big plays on defense. The Patriots were second in the league with 41 forced turnovers during the regular season (Bears, 44). Giving the Patriots offense a few extra swings at the plate — with short fields — was one of their greatest strengths.
Against the Ravens, the Patriots didn’t force a single turnover.
“They came out and made the plays,” said linebacker Brandon Spikes. “It’s that simple. You have to come out, get the job done, and execute, and obviously they did a better job than us preparing through the week. They showed up today and it’s tough to swallow.”
Why the Patriots defense wasn’t able to make enough plays is up for debate. It’s almost a chicken-and-the-egg conversation.
If you think coverage is a determining factor, then the injury to cornerback Aqib Talib in the first quarter made a huge difference.
If you believe affecting the quarterback regardless of who’s in coverage is a bigger factor, then the lack of an effective pass rush without rookie end Chandler Jones loomed larger.
The fact is, coverage and pressure work hand in hand. You need both to win the biggest games.
You can make the case the Patriots didn’t have enough of either.
Certainly it didn’t help when Talib, the team’s best cornerback by far, left and did not return with a right thigh injury with 5:10 remaining in the first quarter.
“We had to make some adjustments to what we were doing,” coach Bill Belichick said. “When [defensive tackle] Kyle [Love] went out [with a knee injury] and when Talib went out, we had to make some adjustments. But that’s the National Football League.”
Safety Steve Gregory said Talib’s absence didn’t change much.
“Gameplan wise, we stuck with what we were doing so it’s unfortunate that he got hurt, but guys step up and play,” Gregory said. “Of course, you never want to see one of your guys go down. It doesn’t matter who is in there. We need to just find a way to go out there and make plays and give ourselves a chance to win the football game. Just overall, we didn’t do that.”
The Ravens said they didn’t change their approach when Talib left.
“I’m sure that’s tough for them,” said receiver Torrey Smith. “He definitely helped them out a lot, but I’m not taking anything away. We won. I’m not going to say if he was out there then there would be a huge difference.
“We ran the same stuff. It’s not like we just attacked anyone. The ball was spread out. The middle of the field, outside. Tight ends made plays, running backs made plays. It was all on Joe. He was getting the ball everywhere.”
Smith has a point. How many of the Ravens’ big completions were just flat-out bad plays by the Patriots secondary? Not many. Most of the time it was just the Ravens making a really good play on the ball, which was put in a terrific spot by Flacco.
“You have to give credit to our offense,” said Ravens safety James Ihedigbo, a Patriot last season. “I mean, our offense executed great. Joe made some amazing throws and [Anquan Boldin] did what he does; he’s a playmaker. He continued to make big catches. Dennis [Pitta] made a great catch over the middle on third down to keep the drive going. You have to look at the plays that our offense has made. It’s not necessarily one player on their side or on our side but it’s just consistency of making the plays. And our offense made more plays than they did.”
Flacco also didn’t take the bait that most quarterbacks do. He rarely threw into a bad spot, like when Gregory was playing the robber position in the middle of the field.
“I think he just did a good job of reading it maybe understanding that that’s some of the things that we like to do and wasn’t really trying to squeeze it in there on some of those opportunities that I might have had to jump on it,” Gregory said. “He played a heck of a game.”
A growing problem for the Patriots toward the end of the season was a lack of pressure on the quarterback. Even in last week’s win over the Texans, the Patriots were able to pressure Matt Schaub on just 20.8 percent of his dropbacks. That was the team’s sixth-worst rate this season.
Against the Texans, before reviewing the film, the Patriots got pressure on Flacco just 20 percent of the time on his 40 dropbacks: two sacks (one was a coverage sack), two hurries, and four knockdowns. The Ravens offensive line had a fairly easy time of it.
“We like zero [sacks], zero [hurries], zero [knockdowns], but two-two-four is OK,” said veteran center Matt Birk.
The only time the Patriots have been that low at pressuring the quarterback since beating the Jets on Thanksgiving: 16.7 percent in the home loss to the 49ers.
“I don’t think we were able to affect him enough,” said rookie end Justin Francis. “We got him off the spot sometimes but most of the time, it just wasn’t good enough.’’
A lack of pressure on the quarterback in 2011 prompted Bill Belichick to trade up in the draft to land Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Jones had six sacks early in the season but none after first injuring his right ankle against the Colts Nov. 18. He had been rounding into form before reaggravating it against the Texans. Jones only played in goal line defense against the Ravens.
“He’s a great player too, a great young player,” Birk said. “Certainly he has shown that throughout his rookie season. At this point everybody has injuries.”
Hightower didn’t have a single pressure, even when he was asked to blitz a handful of times.
The injuries to Jones and Love left the Patriots with a defensive line of Rob Ninkovich (two sacks), Vince Wilfork, Brandon Deaderick, and Francis, an undrafted rookie. Jermaine Cunningham didn’t show anything after his suspension for using a banned substance. Free agent Trevor Scott didn’t get his usual couple of pressures against the Ravens.
“I don’t think we hit them enough,” said defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. “I don’t think we pressured them enough.”
When the Patriots won the AFC title last year, Wilfork had perhaps the finest game of his career with 1.5 sacks, 4 hurries, and 2.5 stuffed runs all by himself as he just about embarrassed Birk and right guard Marshall Yanda. On Sunday night, Wilfork finished officially with an assisted tackle and one knockdown.
“Whenever you play New England, you think about Vince because he’s their force in the middle and he disrupts plays and you want to try to contain it as best you can,” Yanda said. “I think we contained him pretty well. He made some plays, but he didn’t have the game he had last year which is good, because he really had a great game last year and really disrupted our offense. We didn’t double him any more than we did last year.
“When we started throwing it, they kind of got tired and they weren’t really pass rushing when you throw that much. And they weren’t getting home.
“Joe did a great job of getting rid of the ball on time. When the ball’s out and they can’t get there, they kind of get discouraged a little bit. It was great.”
In the end, the Ravens are going to the Super Bowl and the Patriots aren’t because they were able to make the key plays, and some of the players that were missing definitely factored into that.
“All year guys have stepped in and done a great job,” Wilfork said. “Who knows if it would have been different if [injuries] wouldn’t have happened? We don’t know that. I just think the Ravens played better and they made more plays than we did. That was the bottom line.”Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.